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Judge rules in Fairbanks redistricting case

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Posted: Sunday, December 25, 2011 10:50 pm | Updated: 1:37 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — A Superior Court judge has granted a partial victory to two Fairbanks residents challenging parts of the state’s new map of legislative districts.

Judge Michael McConahy agreed with Ester resident George Riley and Goldstream resident Ron Dearborn that two new Fairbanks House districts are not compact, as required by the Alaska Constitution. The Friday rulings came after a court hearing in Fairbanks last week.

McConahy disagreed with the two men, however, on the issue of a third local district — the new House District 38, which is the most contentious Interior aspect of the legislative map adopted by the Alaska Redistricting Board. The plaintiffs wanted the judge to immediately invalidate the district, but the judge said a legitimate point of contention needs to be examined.

“There is clearly a genuine issue of material fact whether House District 38 is required by the Voting Rights Act,” McConahy wrote. “The issue will proceed to trial.”

The federal Voting Rights Act seeks to safeguard minority representation in legislative bodies. Alaska is one of a handful of states whose legislatives maps must be pre-approved by the Department of Justice, which did approve the new map.

District 38 would include Ester and part of the Goldstream Valley to a district that reaches all the way to the state’s southwest coast. Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, represents Ester and Goldsteam as part of House District 8, which reaches down to the Healy area.

“The court clearly put the absurd actions of the board in context,” Guttenberg wrote in an email reply to the News-Miner on Sunday. “What was done to the voters of Fairbanks, and other Alaskans, is clearly outside of the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.

“The board exceeded its authority,” he wrote. “I’m glad that the court recognizes this and is acting to correct it.”

Riley and Dearborn had filed a request for summary judgment on the three districts, a fourth district affecting the Aleutian Islands and on other related matters.

The two men prevailed with the judge on House Districts 1 and 2, which together reach from east Fairbanks down the Richardson Highway to just beyond Eielson Air Force Base.

The judge objected to a western appendage in saying District 1 is not compact, rejecting the redistricting board’s claim it was created to achieve equality. The board will need to produce evidence at trial to support its contention that the district can deviate from the constitutional requirement to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

Although critical of the district, McConahy rejected a claim redistricting board member Jim Holm, who previously represented Fairbanks in the House, was politically motivated in drawing District 1, which includes east Fairbanks and Fort Wainwright.

“As the court noted earlier, it finds the allegations regarding Mr. Holm’s political motivation speculative and unpersuasive,” McConahy wrote. “That, however, does not end the matter.”

McConahy had stronger criticism of District 2, whose western end carves a slot into District 1. He found no Voting Rights Act justification had been asserted for the drawing of this district.

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